Design for Learning – Handsonict MOOC

I have just competed a rather intensive MOOC on designing ICT rich learning activities called Hands- on ICT.

In the words of the MOOC developers it:

… [focuses] on the Learning Design Studio (LDS) approach, a design process to help educators design courses and learning activities.

A colleague has posted in detail his overall impressions of the MOOC at and rather than cover that ground again, I will endorse his comments and suggest you read his contribution yourself.

Since the MOOC finishes tomorrow, and may not be offered again (let’s hope it can be) I would like to preserve the essentials of the LDS approach as it was presented through the MOOC.

In a nutshell the Learning Design Studio (LDS) approach to educational design is an adaptation of the standard design process as taught in my design classes. The steps in the LDS process are adaptations from the object design process, taking into account the learning context for the design. In other words the result of the LDS process is a fluid activity involving interactions between learners and teachers, rather than a static artifact and the process reflects that.

The Dream

It is usual in design to start with a design brief. The design brief sets out the design problem and the context, constraints and considerations, for the design.

In the LDS based approach the brief is replaced with a dream. The dream consists of:

  • Situation or context
  • The change we would like to see (challenge)
  • The proposed solution
  • Measures of success

So the dream fulfills the role of the design brief, but it is subtly different. While a design brief begins with a problem and outlines the parameters around that problem, the dream involves looking at how things are in our classroom, imagining how it might be better and describing what that ‘something better’  might look like.

The dream is the driver for the learning design process and much of what follows involves adding specifics and details to the initial dream.

Starting with a dream colours the entire design process with an optimism. In some ways traditional object designers find themselves always referring back to a problem, while in this learning design process the designer is always referring back to a solution, a vision of something better.


The second stage is to develop persona(e) for the participants in the learning activity. The persona is an extension from the context in the dream. This is an important stage, as learning is a human activity and it is important to consider those personae in the learning design. The personae consist of things such as:

  • Education and experience
  • Role and responsibilities
  • Technical skills
  • Subject domain skills and knowledge
  • Motivation and desires
  • Goals and expectations
  • Obstacles to their success
  • Unique Assets

All these things have an impact on the teaching and learning and need to be considered in the learning design.  For instance pitching an activity at the wrong level of technical skill for the participants can limit the effectiveness of the activity. Failure to align the activity with the Goals of the students can also create issues etc.

Context, Factors and Concerns

Based on the personae and the dream, the next step in the process is to identify specific factors and concerns. These might involve the availability of suitable resources, or factors arising out of the personae such as inappropriate motivations or goals, or limited background skills.

Once these things are documented they can be taken into account in the final learning design.


Heuristic evaluation is a technique borrowed from usability research, where a group of experts is asked to assess a particular design using a given rubric (set of heuristics). It offers a low-cost rapid evaluation which often uncovers design flaws at an early stage.

It is fair to say that this step in the LDS process caused the most difficulty for the participants in the MOOC. The heuristics consist of a series of evaluative questions or considerations used to judge the effectiveness of the activity. In my case the activity was an online learning package and my heuristics evaluated content, layout, navigation, platform and pedagogy. For example my content heuristics included:

  1. Structure and advanced organizers
    1. Are there summaries which assist communication?
    2. Is the content logically organized through the units and pages?
    3. Are the rubrics clear and effective in assisting peer review?
  2. Language
    1. Is the language appropriate to 16 – 18 year old students?
    2. Are the ideas clearly explained?

These questions can be used to evaluate and improve the activity.

Based on the forum discussion it seemed that a lot of the participants had difficulty envisioning heuristics for an activity that was yet to be written. It is important to write the heuristics first, however, so that they can guide the development of the activity. Heuristics written later in the process are likely to be limited by the designer’s perception of the work. In effect there is the danger that the heuristics share the designer’s blindness to the weaknesses in the activity. In other words the heuristics need to guide the design process, not be shaped by the design process.

Research existing activities

It is a standard part of any design activity to look for comparable work. This can act as an inspiration while also avoiding ‘reinventing the wheel’.

In my case I found a number of examples amongst the references given which assisted in developing my activity.


At this stage the designer returns again the the dream to write a scenario about the learning activity. The scenario is really just a story about the activity in operation. It is important because it focuses the dream and assists the designer to fully envision how the activity will work from the student’s point of view. This slide share (also provided as part of the MOOC resources) describes scenarios well:


At this stage a prototype, or rough version, of the activity is developed. This is a further opportunity to envision the learning activity as a whole. In object design a prototype would consist of a scale model, but in learning design it is more likely to take the form of a part of the activity or an overview of the activity. Participants in the handson MOOC favoured Prezi presentations, or mind maps for their prototypes. These are suitable for providing an overview, but in my case it was difficult to apply the heuristics to properly test the prototype. Sample content or an abbreviated activity is more effective at this stage in my (retrospective) opinion.

The Activity – Evaluation and Review

After all the work it is with some relief that the activity can be developed. And of course evaluated and reviewed using the heuristics developed earlier. (In the design world nothing is ever finished.)

It is tempting to wonder why this involved process in developing a learning activity is important. At times I questioned some of the steps as I completed them, but towards the end of the process it became obvious to me that I had learned things along the way that significantly informed the activity I developed. It is true that as teachers we don’t have the time to replicate this process for every learning activity we develop, but it is certainly valuable to apply this process to some activities. It is also true that having been through this process once, much of it can be reused to develop further activities. For instance the personae, context, heuristics etc. once developed will be relevant to further learning design situations.

I think that as we come under increasing pressure to develop learning activities that are relevant to students and provide rich opportunities to develop 21st Century skills, this design process will be an important aspect of our professional practice. I was not taught to approach learning design this way during my teacher training, but I am sure that I would have become a better teacher more quickly if I had.

For more information on LDS I refer you to this blog.


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